New dad Aranda arrives at camp seeking breakout season

February 18th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It was a big offseason for , as he celebrated the birth of his first daughter, Regina Sofia, a little more than a month ago. A lot of smiles, not a lot of sleep.

Now comes a big Spring Training for the 25-year-old infielder, who reported to Charlotte Sports Park on Sunday in an interesting spot. He’s checked every box in the Minors -- especially in Triple-A -- manager Kevin Cash said, having dominated at that level for the past two years. But Aranda has yet to establish himself in the Majors.

He’ll get every opportunity to do so this spring.

“It's hard to be as productive as he's been in Triple-A and not have some amount of that carry over,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “We'll see how the camp plays out. But if things play out in the way where he's afforded that opportunity for more of a consistent role, he knows it's going to be there and he's not stressing every single at-bat as he gets them, I think there's some great benefits to that.”

The Rays saw that play out last season with, among others, Josh Lowe and Luke Raley. They’ve moved on from other players in similar situations, like Nathaniel Lowe, only to see them take off elsewhere. Could Aranda be the next breakout candidate? He believes so, and Neander said the Rays trust he “deserves a chance for a really serious look.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I know I can play at the big league level,” Aranda said, with assistant hitting coach Brady North interpreting. “I’m going to be ready for this opportunity.”

Trading Raley will create some left-handed at-bats that Aranda can claim. But with an established group of starting infielders and other prospects banging down the door, he’ll have to be versatile enough to handle first, second and third base to get the kind of consistent at-bats that he’s acknowledged he needs in order to find his rhythm. Thus, defensive work was a big focal point for Aranda over the winter.

He has little left to prove in Triple-A, where he has hit .328/.421/565 with 43 home runs and 166 RBIs in 199 games. But his Major League production has not matched that. He’s hit .212/.311/.346 in relatively limited opportunities over 66 games the past two years, and he struggled badly against big league fastballs last season.

“He can hit. It just doesn't always happen when I want it, we want it or the player sometimes,” Cash said. “But maybe this spring is where he gets that rhythm and can really do some special things with the bat.”

North joked that Aranda should benefit from his new “dad strength,” but Aranda more seriously believes having a baby at home should help him in a different way.

“It’s definitely changed a little bit. Now it’s a little easier,” he said, smiling, “because now I’m doing everything for her and our family.”

Around the horn

• Sunday was the day for position players to report to Spring Training. Jose Siri is expected to join the club for Monday’s first full-squad workout. Everyone else has reported as scheduled, with the exception of shortstop Wander Franco.

Franco, who does not have a locker set up in the Rays’ clubhouse, was reinstated to Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in the offseason after finishing the season on administrative leave while being investigated by Major League Baseball and authorities in the Dominican Republic.

• The conditions weren’t exactly ideal for a workout at Charlotte Sports Park on Sunday. Players and staff were buzzing around the complex for the annual spring photo day, and most position players were undergoing their physicals. It also rained all day, keeping the Rays off the field and forcing them to do whatever work they could indoors.

But they made the best of it, with about a dozen pitchers throwing their scheduled bullpen sessions. Cash noted that starters Ryan Pepiot and Taj Bradley and reliever Manuel Rodríguez stood out.

“Just encouraged that we were able to get something productive out of today,” Cash said.

• Richie Palacios, acquired from the Cardinals for Andrew Kittredge this offseason, will work some at second base while spending the majority of his time in the outfield. Palacios played a lot of second base in the lower Minors, but he focused more on all three outfield spots in recent years. The Rays hope that reintroducing Palacios to the infield will add to his versatility and their late-game roster maneuverability.